Former first sergeant finds healing at Vet Center, learns self-care after service


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“It feels so good to be authentic,” Kelly Robertson said reflecting upon her journey over the past 20years. “I’m still Kelly, but now I’m a better Kelly.”

In 2004, Kelly was setting up a booth for her wedding beauty business – “Kelly Robertson Hair & Makeup” – at the Summer Veterans’ Expo & Job Fair. Walking around the expo, she stopped by a Vet Center stall to introduce herself and spoke briefly with a combat Veteran behind the booth. Their conversation planted the seed that changed Kelly’s life.

Kelly served as a first sergeant in the U.S. Air Force Reserve from 1983 to 2004, deploying for both Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations. As she climbed the military ladder, she felt increasingly isolated from her colleagues and feared she was developing a problem with alcohol. As first sergeant, she felt the pressure of being held to a higher standard and counseling those she supervised. She explained the military’s spirit of “service before self” clouded her ability to know her own value and advocate for herself when facing her addiction.

“For me, it was the guilt, lies, shame,” Kelly said as her problem with alcohol spiraled.  “I would have embarrassed my peers, my commanding officers and my husband who was an aviator,” Kelly said when considering seeking help for her addiction during her service.

Fate intervened when her brief conversation with a Vet Center outreach specialist set her down the path to recovery. At the 2004 expo, the specialist spoke with Kelly about the possibility of retiring to alleviate the contributing factors of her addiction. He advised flipping her perspective to view leaving her first sergeant position as opening an opportunity for others to advance. Kelly soon retired and began working on her personal business full time.

However, as Kelly’s addiction spilled into her civilian life she decided to enroll as a client at a Vet Center in 2014. “It took 10 years, but he planted the seed,” Kelly said of her conversation with the outreach specialist in 2004.

At her local Vet Center, she presented her discharge from active duty and attended the introductory meeting. The confidential counseling was a breakthrough for her addiction, and Kelly began prioritizing her health immediately.

With “sheer will power,” Kelly is now in her fifth year of sobriety. Though her conversation with the Vet Center representative was “brief and concise,” Kelly pinpoints the moment as pivotal in setting her on the road to recovery.

“I wish that I could have talked with him more,” she remembered. Kelly supplemented her rehabilitation program at the Vet Center by participating in a private addiction medicine program and day treatment service.

Today, she runs her a successful beauty business “Strong Beauty Warrior” which offers military women and Veterans the opportunity to present their best to potential employers.

“I thought: I’m good with hair and makeup. Why can’t I help military women with that one missing piece?”  Kelly explained.

She thus expanded her initial beauty business in 2018 to begin offering services and lessons to military women. To do this, she has partnered with the Women Veterans Alliance in Sacramento and the Rosie Network in San Diego as her business continues to grow.

Kelly has kept in contact with her Vet Center counselors, and currently serves Hollywood Post 43 chapter of the American Legion.  She hopes all Veterans can learn more about Vet Centers and the resources available to them. “We’re just people, we’re not always 100 percent,” she explained.

Vet Centers are located across the country to provide a range of readjustment, outreach and referral services to Veterans, active duty service members and their families. Services are free of cost, strictly confidential and include individual, group, marriage and family counseling as well as referral services. To find a Vet Center near you, click here or call 1-877-WAR-VETS (1-877-927-8387).

 

Author

Erin Murphy

Erin is a senior studying Government and History at the College of William and Mary. She is originally from Herndon, Virginia and is currently a Writing and Social Media intern at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.